When Matt Urmy walked into Cowboy Jack Clement‘s Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa on Nashville’s Belmont Boulevard six years ago, he remembers feeling like he’d walked into a time capsule.
One day in October 2010, Urmy cold called Clement while on break at his former day job at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute to invite him to headline and be his guest of honor his Renaissance Rodeo Show at 3rd & Lindsley downtown. After filling in Clement on the details, Urmy was invited over that evening so the two could get to know each other over Virginia Slims.
“When I walked in there,” Urmy recalled during our CMT.com interview, “my stomach almost fell through my feet because it was a time capsule of music history. There were framed pictures of him with the Carters and the Cashes. There was shag carpet that had been there since the ’70s when he bought the house. They were all smoking inside.
“He took me back in his office, and I sat down with him. And he said, ‘What’s this show again?’ I explained it to him, and he didn’t answer right away. He said, ‘Check this out.'”
That’s when Clement played a CD of himself singing Allen Reynolds’ “We Must Believe in Magic.”
“Every time the female voices would sing “magic” in the chorus,” Urmy recalled, “he would flutter his head and throw his head back and say, ‘Magic,’ and he was just getting the biggest kick out of his own songs.”
Clement’s impact on modern music is immeasurable, and Urmy considers it a great honor to have known him in his final years life. Clement died in August 2013 following a lengthy illness.
In 1956, Sam Phillips hired Clement to be a producer at Sun Records where he recorded some of the earliest hits by Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich. He even rolled tape on the famous Million Dollar Quartet session on Dec. 4 of that year with Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Elvis Presley on the piano (One of Presley’s favorite things in life was getting friends around a piano and singing gospel all night long).
Clement also convinced Chet Atkins to sign Charley Pride to RCA Records while the nation was in the thick of the ’60s civil rights movement. It was also his idea to add mariachi horns to Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
Over his long career, Clement produced records for an astounding array of artists, including Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold, Louis Armstrong, U2, Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, the Stonemans, John Hartford, Mac Wiseman, Doc Watson, Frank Yankovic, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, Dickey Lee and Bobby Bare.
At various times in his colorful life, he was a movie producer, songwriter, performing and recording artist, studio engineer and dance instructor. He was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October 2013.
Clement performed at Urmy’s Renaissance Rodeo Show, had a blast doing it and on the following day, he invited Urmy back to the Cowboy Arms and offered to record his next album. Over two excruciating hours, Urmy watched Clement go through his music disc by disc, listening to the material but not saying a word between drags off a lit cigarette.
“I had no idea what he was thinking,” Urmy said. “He wouldn’t even look at me. I thought he was going to cancel this whole thing. He put out his cigarette, looked at me and said, ‘You kind of remind me of Kris Kristofferson. You can’t really sing. But your lyrics are great.’
“I almost cried when he said that to me. I wasn’t hurt by the fact that he told me I couldn’t sing. I thought, ‘How awesome?’ For singers’ singers, that’s their main talent and songwriting really isn’t their thing. Then you have people are great voices who can also write. Then you’ve got a bunch of writers who can’t sing really worth a damn by traditional standards, but they’re just great writers. I’ve always seen myself in that latter category.”
Urmy tracked what would become Out of The Ashes (out March 31) at the Cowboy Arms in 14 days with Clement producing, and it would Clement’s final production at the famous recording studio. The two would start tracking days in his office going over the songs to record. Then Clement would oversee the beginning of each session and then he would break for a nap to let the band work on their own.
“A few hours later, he would come back wandering up in his bathrobe and slippers and have a cigarette or two and listen to what we were doing,” Urmy said. “Then everybody would leave at the end of the day and I would go down and sit with him in his office to listen back to what we had. He would say, ‘I don’t like the way you sang that. You need to put a melody there,’ and ‘You need to actually sing. The piano’s too busy.'”
Clement really liked what he was hearing when he would start to dance.
“He was a ballroom dance instructor,” Urmy said, “so he would start dancing, and he would grab whatever girl was in the room and start dancing with her if he really liked the vibe. His process was very laidback.”
The album would be one of Clement’s final productions at the Cowboy Arms before a fire destroyed most of the original home and the priceless musical artifacts inside in 2011.
“We were in the middle of mixing it and the whole place burned down,” Urmy said. “My record was the least of what was lost. My record didn’t mean shit compared to what else was lost in that house.”
Clement kept bookcases from the floor to the ceiling full of two-inch reel-to-reel tapes of everyone he recorded there. Urmy recalls seeing labels that read “Dolly and Porter,” “Louis Armstrong,” “Johnny Cash,” “John Prine,” “Emmylou Harris” and “Alison Krauss.”
“All of them were master tapes that he had done,” Urmy said, “and a lot of them were full tapes of all those people like Cash, Jennings and Parton just getting drunk and singing songs in his attic with him. Jack always had a tape rolling.”
Urmy raced to Belmont Boulevard to be with his friend when he first found out about the fire. He was charged with picking up Clement’s prescriptions at the pharmacy to replace the medications he lost in the blaze. When he returned, he found Clement surrounded by family — a man lost and brokenhearted on the sidewalk. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
“Stupidly, I put my hand on his back and said, ‘Can I get you anything?’ And he looked up at me dead in the eyes and said, ‘A new world,'” Urmy recalled. “That was when it really hit me what was happening. He had lost a lot before in other periods of his life. But he was never the same after that. His health started deteriorating pretty much right away.”
A year later, Urmy got a call that his album was one of the recordings that was miraculously salvaged from the fire. None of the original sessions needed to be redone. While Clement’s home was being rebuilt, they relocated to Nashville’s Sound Emporium and recorded two new songs — an updated “We Must Believe in Magic” duet with Clement and Urmy’s original “I’m Gone.” A film crew shot the session for “We Must Believe in Magic” and raw footage from that day is featured in Urmy’s new video for the song.
“After the house was rebuilt, and we were back in the original studio that was all remade,” Urmy said, “we went in and recorded ‘Out of the Ashes,’ and it became the title track — sort of full circle. Then he died. I was out in L.A. on business trip when I found out that he passed. I got to see him four days before I left for that trip. I was hoping it wasn’t so, but I also had the feeling that it was going to be the last time I saw him alive.”
So, does Urmy ever feel like somebody’s looking out for him?
“I always feel like there is a guiding presence in my life,” he said. “That’s why I love ‘We Must Believe in Magic.’ We must believe in the guiding hand. I also feel like you have to pay attention to it, listen to it and do it. When a door opens, you’ve got to walk through it.”